By Dan Reardon
Years ago, when Arnold Palmer was at the peak of his prowess and popularity, my local newspaper did something I had never seen before or since. They bold-printed Palmer’s name and score when running the tournament golf scores. Someone there realized that, even if people weren’t necessarily into golf, they were into Palmer.
In today’s digital world, that same option of selecting a player(s) to pull out for quick reporting appears on the PGA Tour’s online leaderboard. And that leads to the question: Setting aside the fantasy leaguers, who would you pull out of the current crop of today’s Tour players to be your “bold print” Palmer? With Tiger Woods sidelined, there is no clear-cut figure, and the choice can be more eclectic.
For me, the choice is easy: Jordan Spieth. But this isn’t about touting Spieth to be the game’s next great superstar as much as to suggest, for a variety of reasons, that he is the most interesting young talent in the game.
His playing credentials are almost indisputable. His maiden win at Hartford this past week is his 10th career win, which includes two majors. Compared to a 23-year-old Tiger Woods at this same date on the calendar, Spieth has three more career wins and one more major. (Of course, Woods reeled off six additional wins and his second major before he turned 24, and added nine more wins, three of them majors, the following year.) So the resume supports Spieth’s elite status on Tour.
That’s what he has done. But of greater importance to me is how he has done it and who he is.
His game is unique among full-time PGA Tour players. Only Sweden’s Alex Noren, an occasional participant on the U.S. Tour, is statistically shorter off the tee than Spieth, who, at 291 yards, ranks 90th in driving distance. Stretching courses to obscene lengths, as at Erin Hills, moves a player like Spieth further down in his bag. Jason Day was paired with Spieth in the final round of the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, and the Australian’s superior distance off the tee kept Spieth literally out of speaking range in the fairway.
Perhaps even more surprising is that the 23-year-old Texan has never made up for his distance challenge with accuracy from the teeing ground. In his first four years on tour, he has never cracked the top 75 in driving accuracy. That anomaly is compounded by the fact that prior to this year, he had never ranked in the top 50 in greens in regulation (he currently ranks fifth).
Even his reputation as one of the game’s best putters comes up short statistically, with rankings in strokes gained and total putting consistently out of the top 40. His sabermetric profile would put him among the Tour’s the rank and file. But his trophy case belies the statistics. Using a baseball analogy, he’s golf’s Greg Maddox.
What none of the stats can quantify with data is his mind. Jordan “plays” golf. His former Walker Cup captain, Jim Holtgrieve, once described him as playing the game inside himself. That inner game is one of the things that makes him fun to watch.
On the final day at the Travelers Championship, Spieth was a case study in what would have been for many players a complete collapse. He hung on the edge of water hazards; he missed several short putts. And in his crowning moment in the playoff with Daniel Berger, he hit a tree off the tee, left his approach in the bunker and then holed out for the win. One properly executed stroke and another trophy. He holds your attention.
Thanks to television, he also holds your ears. He has always been vocally animated in the game. He talks to his caddie, Michael Greller. He talks to the golf ball constantly. He talks to himself repeatedly. He may say “Jordan” more than the announcers over 18 holes. And he does this with charm. This is not Tiger getting caught on mic. This isn’t McEnroe mouthing off at center court. This is “have the young man over for dinner” Texas polite, at least to this point in his young career.
It would be fascinating to mic up Greller for a round and listen in every time Spieth is on camera. Even this little bit of eavesdropping would be a peak into his golfing mind.
Then there is Jordan the interviewee. A writer once said about Spieth that he answers questions from the media like a student trying to get an “A” from his teacher. His quote sheets are never canned, regurgitated or measured responses. Having been in the room at all four majors in 2015, listening to him at 21 respond was as much a pleasure as watching him play. Spieth in one week on an event leaderboard provides more post-round content than Tiger Woods did in his entire career.
Naturally, Woods comes up often after a Spieth win. He did again at Hartford, and in typical style, Spieth fashioned a winning response: “I’m hesitant and will speak out adamantly about not comparing myself to anybody else. I think that’s unfair. I don’t think anybody will do what Tiger did for the game. But it’s really cool to be out here at my age, to experience what we’re able to experience, play golf for a living.”
A PR executive told me as Spieth was cruising to his Masters win in 2015 that Augusta National would have to worry because he doesn’t have much sizzle. It’s hard to market nice, but for me it’s written in bold print.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.